Oct 122011

Walt Whitman

Through Danny Lyon

Last week, I slept on ceremonial

Hopi Land in northern Arizona.

Prior to leaving, photographer

Danny Lyon and I sat in a park

on Mulberry Street.  He said

something that stuck with me.

But it was not until I travelled

half way across the country

that his Walt Whitman quote

sank into my body.


Walt Whitman used to hang out at a place called Pfaff’s Bar at 643 Broadway, which is now a deli. What a shame. They recently opened a Pfaff’s Revival Bar downstairs.

Pfaff’s Bar on Broadway

Later this week, I will post my interview with Danny Lyon.  We were supposed to meet at the Phaidon Press office for a formal interview.  The entire interview process is still a little strange to me.  I am not a journalist.  I have no training in the art of interviewing people.  The questions reflect my interests, as a photographer, in other people’s work.  In the weeks leading up to the interview, I brushed up on Danny’s work and prepared a list of questions which focused on his recent book collaboration with Phaidon Press called “Deep Sea Diver.”

Danny Lyon with Lolly, his translator for Deep Sea Diver. My interview with Danny will probably run on Friday. © Danny Lyon

As I stepped out of the subway, Danny called and asked if we could meet in the park instead.  He did not feel like sitting in an office.  I could not have agreed more.  Without getting too deep into our conversation Danny said something that stuck in my head.  We were discussing what happens when you venture into another profession.  In his case he wandered from photography, to film, and to writing.  In a moment of confession he said:

“I contain multitudes.” 

He explained that is was a quote from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.”  The total passage reads like this:

“The past and present wilt–I have fill’d them, emptied them. 

And proceed to fill my next fold of the future. 

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? 

Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening, 

(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.) 

Do I contradict myself? 

Very well then I contradict myself, 

(I am large, I contain multitudes.) 

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab. 

Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper? 

Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?” 

The pit for the central column took us three hours to dig. We had to use a pick axe to chip a massive stone at the bottom of the hole. © Adam Marelli

What Does This Mean

Danny and I continued our conversation over the next four hours.  This formal interview transformed into a casual exchange about work, life, and building.  We discovered a common interest in construction and a mutual distrust for architects.  Turns out he built a house in New Mexico with the same adobe techniques not far from where I was headed in Arizona.  Near is a relative term out there.  Anything within a hundred miles is near, he said.  I went to spend time with a medicine woman, who commissioned me to design a small temple for her.  On this trip, the temple commencement would be ceremonial (only minimal building). The base of a temple was started by a Hopi medicine man name Elk Dreamer years ago.  So how does all of this connect with Walt Whitman and photography?

Connecting The Dots

While I was sitting in an outhouse in northern Arizona, the phrase “I contain multitudes” felt like it crashed through the roof.  Whitman confirmed that it is Ok to work beyond a single profession.  He does not apologize for his many sides, in fact he sees them as a strength.

Labels are assigned to our work by publicists, critics and librarians.  It is not our job.  Our job is the create the work.  Whitman had the confidence to say he exists outside of the boundaries of a title.  The combination of professional interests, I once viewed as a handicap, eventually turned into an asset.  Sure, there were some bumps in the road, but Whitman inspired a renewed sense of clarity.  His words struck me with same power they must have struck Danny Lyon years ago.  An outhouse is a humble place to have an epiphany, but moments of clarity come at the most bizarre times.

The outhouse in northern Arizona where my epiphany came crashing through the roof. © Adam Marelli

Throughout my professional career, I have maintained a number of interests, printed a number of business cards, and tried at great lengths to summarize my professional work.  The best effort to date is: Artist, Photographer & Builder.  They might seem disconnected, but under the umbrella of Design, they fit together quite nicely.  And while their connection to each other was a protracted process, the combination lead to some interesting work.

As a bit of background, my university degree is in sculpture and photography.  The artistic dilemma straight out of school is that photography would not cover rent.  I decided to pursue construction.  Architecture and building always fascinated me.  I had some hands on experience, but was in no way a professional.  The goal was to work in construction long enough to develop a comfort level with building just about anything.

In the mean time, I would photograph small side jobs to get my bearings in photography.  And with any free time, I worked in the studio making sculpture.  It lead to seventy hour work weeks, which were exhausting.  Eventually I landed a small museum show, found a gallery in New York, built more than I could have imagined, and made the switch to art and photography full time.

I owe a lot to the guys I worked with in construction (Jim Parisi, Mark Ellison, & Cliff Spellacy).  They taught me a great deal about design, materials, and the history of New York City from a practical point of view.  They also showed me that building is an oral tradition.  The knowledge they imparted on me does not exist in any book.  It needed to be learned one on one.  Down the road, it became the reason why I found it necessary to offer private classes to photographers who wanted to learn more about design.  Human interaction is the greatest learning tool.

Over the years I was fortunate enough to run projects in some of the City’s most famous residential buildings like (740 Park Ave, The Beresford, & 15 Central Park West).  And like Danny, ended up writing about construction in the New York Times based on our experiences.

Danny said he was shocked they actually published this article he wrote in the New York Times.

Make The Transition

In the last few years, the photography and building have finally converged.  The project in Tanna, India, and here in New York merge all of my previous experience into projects that I could not have conceived just a few years ago.  There are still a handful of things I do which do not have the overlap like my bi-annual column in the New York Times Style Magazine, as an architectural consultant, or my fashion work for Conde Nast, but the rest of my projects combine the pencil, hammer, and camera.

How To Combine Your Work

When I tell you how I ended up in the Times or got the Tanna project you will laugh.  I originally joined Facebook to send a note to a writer from the Times.  I dropped him a quick note and a few months later I was being interviewed for the “Ask The Contractor” column.  And my email to the Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation for the Tanna project read like this:

“NY based artist, 

with construction background 

interested in artist residency.” 

It reads more like a haiku than a professional email, but one year later I was on a plane to the South Pacific to build with and photograph the Tannese.  In the words of Anthony Robbins, “I am not saying this to impress you, but to impress upon you,” that all of the stupid little efforts, to pursue interesting projects, usually paid off.  There are a bunch of emails that never got answered, phone calls never returned, and promises that were never kept, but that is just part of the game.  Eventually things start to work out.

We slowly organized the ruins of Elk Dreamers foundation into a usable ceremonial space. © Adam Marelli

“I Contain Multitudes”

Maybe we are not supposed to have a distilled professional title like “Doctor” or “Lawyer” and maybe we don’t even want them.  With the way the economy swings these days, a fixed title is hardly an advantage as people are being forced to re-invent themselves everyday.  As artists or photographers we have a certain amount of flexibility.  My story is not unique.  There are plenty of people who maintain multiple professions, but there is little cultural acceptance if your work does not need to fit neatly on to a business card.   I struggled with this concept for years.  To some people I was a builder, to others a photographer, and others an artist.  Trying to put them all together proved to be a formidable task, but for those who want to do it, I would like to tell you:

“It is possible, you can do it.”

While I was in Arizona reflecting on the words of Whitman everything seemed to fall into place.  I looked back on the last few years and started to see how all of the experience of the last decade were connected.  The reason I want to share this with you, is to encourage people to follow their interests.  Photography is just one way of connecting the dots.

© Adam Marelli

OnSite with Charlie Vitchers

At the moment I am working on four major projects, with a few smaller projects in between.  All of which combine drawing, photography, and building.  Unlike most photographers, who bid against each other, none of my projects have competing photographers.  There are very few builders who are also professional photographers.  Therefore, it allows me a touch of freedom.  Certainly there are less jobs, but I am an economy of one, so I only need a handful of jobs to keep me busy.

Each one of these projects came about through a building connection.  The time I once considered to be a wasted in construction proved itself to be relevant and irreplaceable.

As an example, this Saturday I am headed to the first shoot for a project called “OnSite with Charlie Vitchers.”  Charlie was the Site Superintendent responsible for the clean up of 9/11.  I met him at a Joel Meyerowitz book signing.  It turned out that Charlie and I had mutual construction friends and we hit it off well.  I mentioned to him that since I left construction, I wanted to make a portrait series of NYC construction workers.  He loved the idea and made a huge effort to get me on to his job site.

After my first visit to the job site, something became very clear which I had not considered.  The only reason I was allowed to work as an independent photographer beside Charlie, was because he knew I was comfortable in a construction zone, he trusts my judgement, and he knows my purpose for being there is to honor the work which goes unseen everyday.  In a strange way it took me ten years of working, in an unrelated field, to be eligible to photograph the project.  This is the kind of stuff they never taught us in art school.

The Thread Of Design

Throughout all my career the thread which binds every project is design.  Whenever you create something, whether its a photograph or a building, the language of design plays a major part.  If I worked in one isolated field I might not have seen the connection.  But after working through a handful of fields, the role of design in creativity is unmistakeable.  Some people are more fluent in this language than others, but regardless of their field, design links everything.

Our outdoor kitchen on “The Land” in Arizona. © Adam Marelli

The Community

Recently I have been very happy to see the positive feedback from everyone on the Great Composition series because I was told not to write these articles by some other photographers.  They said its all nonsense, photography is completely intuitive, and geometry has nothing to do with composition.  But I disagreed.  Photography is part of the design process.  It is one way to tackle an artistic problem. It shares much of the same DNA as painting, architecture, and sculpture.

I also believe that You (the greater photography community) are interested in understanding how your practice fits into the bigger conversation of Art, how great masters were educated, and how to apply the techniques which have been passed down as oral tradition for centuries.  The great minds that came before us left clues through their sketches, images, and writings with the hope that someone would look at their work.  I consider it a ritual of honoring the artists we admire, to study their work.  Once we finish school, our continued study is not for the prestige of a degree.  We want to improve our work and our ability to see.

In an effort to open the conversation to more people I decided to offer private classes and more recently workshops.  Its not because I feel like I have any gift for teaching.  Quite the opposite.  Though from my own experience, I have found the one on one lessons to be extremely helpful in my learning and hopefully they can be for you too.  When we open a conversation about our work, the combined efforts of all our experiences converge and yield a wealth of knowledge.  This mass of information is greater than the effort any single individual can put forward, which is why your participation is key.  The collective whole will improve.  This is why if you are thinking about putting together a project, publishing a book, entering a contest, or applying for something that seems out of your reach, it is worth doing.  You will be surprised what might work out.

The sky on “The Land” felt like you were on a sail boat breaking the horizon. © Adam Marelli

Maybe this is a long winded entry for an “About” page.  Though I can see from many of the emails I receive that I have not offered a decent background for everyone.  So here is an extended “Hello, nice to meet you.  My name is Adam Marelli and I am an Artist, Photographer & Builder.”

And if I could invite you to add three new words to your daily work they would be:

“I contain multitudes.”



  2 Responses to “Walt Whitman”

  1. Hello
    I have been reading the back issues of your blog. You should add another title on your card, teacher. You seem to have the quality that great teachers have, a mixture of arrogance and modesty. I love your analysis of Cartier Bresson and Eugene Smith. Both of them were my heroes when I first became interested in photography as a kid in Washington Heights. I remember in my art history classes seeing numerous Pietas and then running across Smiths Minamata photograph of the mother bathing her son. I could not believe an image could have that power. I have worked as an actor and director of Shakespeare and others and unfortunately took jobs sellIng cameras. “Each man kills the thing he loves” to quote Oscar Wilde, That part of my life now seems to be over and I am trying to figure out what to do next. Your blog has reawakened a sense of passion in me that had dissipated . I sold my Leica because it was dying of disuse; something I would not have believed possible. Any way just a note of appreciation for your work and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.
    Joe Kase

    • Hi Joe,

      Thank you for the compliment…i think.

      Teacher is weird word for me. I never set out to be a teacher. Its simply a by product of the artistic process. If an artist, or anyone for that matter, really understand something, they should be able to explain it back to someone else.

      Its the wheel of artist/apprentice that goes round and round. And instead of issuing 16th century beatings (See how Benvenuto Cellini treated his assistants) I prefer a good chat and to crack a bottle of wine and a few jokes. Who said learning can’t be fun?!

      Thanks again!


Add Comment Register

 Leave a Reply



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>